Lobby-linked tech contracts probe could trigger procurement reforms

Joseph Brookes
Senior Reporter

The current review of government technology procurements linked to a lobbying scandal engulfing former Services minister Stuart Robert is being structured in a way that could trigger wider reforms.

The two-month review, led by former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Dr Ian Watt, will deliver a report to the heads of Services Australia and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) by March.

But officials on Tuesday said it is being structured in a way that the findings can be shared with other agencies with responsibility for Commonwealth procurement policy.

It comes as the Attorney-General’s Department confirmed that the company at the heart of the alleged scandal has not yet registered as a lobbyist or responded to its multiple request for more information.

Stuart Robert has denied any misconduct in his involvement with a firm that helped tech vendors win large government contracts

The review is examining technology procurements by the agencies that awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to the companies that were clients of consulting firm Synergy360, including Delv, Adobe, Infosys and Salesforce.

Synergy360 — which is not registered as a lobbyist — gained secret advice from former cabinet minister Stuart Robert, who also helped it sign up clients, according to reporting by the Nine newspapers.

The company is part-owned by Mr Robert’s close friend, former business partner and political fundraiser John Margerison. Mr Robert has denied he intervened in procurements to help Synergy360 or its clients, or that he had any conflicts of interest while a minister.

But the media reports have triggered the eight-week Independent Services Australia – NDIA Procurement and Contracting Review.

According to its terms of reference, the review will examine the specific contracts raised in the reporting, including multiple contracts awarded to Indian tech multinational Infosys worth more than $100 million to upgrade Centrelink’s welfare payments software.

The review also has the scope to examine “other relevant procurements” from 2015-16 onwards.

It will be probing if the technology buys were consistent with the Commonwealth Procurement Rules and APS best practice, or differed significantly in any way from other comparable procurements.

Dr Watt’s review will also examine “any real or perceived conflicts of interest, or possible misconduct in these procurements, by Services Australia and NDIA employees and related contractors”.

At Senate Estimates on Tuesday, Services Australia chief Rebecca Skinner said Dr Watt is being supported by a cross agency team led by officials from Services Australia, with the support of the NDIA and Department of Finance – the latter being the policy owner of Commonwealth Procurement Rules.

“They’re there to support… an independent understanding of the best practice around Commonwealth procurement rules,” she told the hearing.

Ms Skinner confirmed a final report would go to her and NDIA chief executive Rebecca Falkingham but is being “prepared in such a manner that it can be shared” with other stakeholders. The review structure opens the possibility of triggering wider reforms.

“If necessary,” Ms Skinner said, “If there are findings in there that go beyond findings around the procurement practices in Services Australia and NDIA it will be prepared such that it could be shared with other agencies that are stakeholders in the management of the Commonwealth procurement system, the Department of Finance, Attorney-Generals Department etc.”

Finance is the policy holder for Commonwealth Procurement Rules and is currently seeking to improve practices across government by highlighting good work and raising awareness of agencies and suppliers’ obligations, although it plays no enforcement role.

The Attorney-General’s Department administers the Lobbying Code of Conduct and the Register of Lobbyists.

AGD officials were also questioned about Synergy360 on Tuesday, confirming the company is yet to register as a lobbyist and has not provided a substantive response to two requests from the department for more information. The officials conceded it was difficult to monitor the engagement of non-registered companies like Synergy360 with federal politicians and it would be relying on the company to provide it with information.

“It’s a mechanism that works best when there is cooperation with those in which we have engagements,” AGD deputy secretary Simon Newnham said.

“And so we’re seeking to take that exact same approach as we would with any matter with Synergy 360 And we’ll draw from the information they made out to provide to us.”

The department’s secretary, Katherine Jones, added it was also up to members of parliament to be aware of the requirements around lobbying and the register, and several had made reports about potential non-registered lobbying.

“It does rely a little bit on the understanding of members of parliament and their preparedness to engage with us as well,” she said.

Synergy360 has previously told its clients it is not a lobbyist and was instead consulting “across the full spectrum of the capability lifecycle from definition to delivery” with government and private sector clients.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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